NORCECA La Paz: The Manhattan Open of The NORCECA Tour
It would have been easy to ignore it, when Daymian Stewart said, on the bus from the airport to our hotel in La Paz, Mexico, that this was the finest stop on the NORCECA Tour.
He is, after all, the NORCECA Competition Director. Supposed to say those things, you know? Kinda part of the gig.
Every stop, it could have been assumed, is the best stop, when you’re the director of the whole thing.
After two days here in La Paz, though, it is not difficult to see why he’d proclaim such a thing. This stop is the Manhattan Open of the NORCECA Tour. There’s a stadium court. Live television. Media day. A sold-out arena. VIP area. Fans asking for pictures and autographs. Ball girls springing for balls with such a glee and enthusiasm and pride in their jobs you’d think they were being paid quite handsomely per shagged ball.
Now, this may all seem quite normal to the American fan. We have media days and ball girls and boys and VIP areas and the works. We have fans asking for pictures and autographs and mingling with the players. It’s standard. While I have only been to two NORCECA stops now, on this tour, I can assure you that this is not the typical case.
In Martinique, my first stop, the site was being built the day of.
“We were cutting down poles that morning,” Stewart, said, laughing. He wasn’t wrong. Players were pulling out tree roots in the middle of sets because, well, trees had been cut down the morning of competition to make room for the site, which was held on a dirt patch just off the beach. There were no fans, for there was no room for them. It was just dirt, volleyball, and a breathtaking beach right next door.
In a sport mired in dire funding, NORCECA is the scrappiest of the bunch. I do not know where it gets the money to put on events, only that sometimes it does and sometimes it does not. NORCECAs are notorious for last-minute cancellations, due to a menagerie of reasons.
They will not, however, cancel La Paz.
This is the fourth consecutive year La Paz has been a stop on the NORCECA Tour. It’s an event the town takes immense pride in, no different than Austin or Seattle or Chicago or New York on the AVP Tour.
“It’s taken great effort to reach all the requirements for this highly-competitive event,” Jose Avila Geraldo, the general director of the Sports Institute of Baja California Sur, said. “Mostly to please the more than 3,000 spectators to support the matches staged in the two courts at Playa del Malecón en La Paz.”
If you think 3,000 is an exaggeration, it, shockingly, alarmingly, delightfully surprisingly, is not. Locals milled about from noon till close to midnight, when the final matches ended under the lights. Prior to the night matches on Friday evening, where our American women, Devon Newberry and Peri Brennan, precocious high schoolers who are both committed to UCLA, beat Nicaragua, 16-14 in the third set, and we – Kyle Friend and I – topped Mexico on a jammed stadium court, there was an Opening Ceremony.
Every seat in the stadium was empty, though only because everybody was standing. Folks were lining up in every hole and crevice one could find just to get a look. It was replete with the usual pomp and circumstance you’d find at any Opening Ceremony: military, color guard, national anthem, words from the governor, words from this president, words from that president, words from this politician and that politician. Flag bearers who are now the most ardent fans of the countries for whom they were bearing their flags.
“And I thought,” Richard Campbell, a Cayman Islander, said, “America loved its military.”
We laughed. America’s proud of it’s military, all right. Just as La Paz is proud of a fine event here in Baja California Sur, as it should be.
Regardless of today’s pool play results, both American teams – Newberry-Brennan, Mewhirter-Friend – have done enough to advance to the quarterfinals later tonight, under the lights. The only difference is who we play.
One thing, though, is assured: The place will be packed, and it will be live.
It is, as Stewart said though now can be fully believed, the finest stop on the NORCECA Tour.
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